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What triggered the first World War

Vickers machine gun in the Battle of Passchendaele in September 1917; Image credit
Vickers machine gun in the Battle of Passchendaele in September 1917; Image credit

Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, is assassinated along with his wife Sophie, by a Serbian nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, in Sarajevo, Bosnia, leading to the outbreak of the World War I on July 28, 1914.

As a reaction to this incident, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, triggering a series of threats and mobilisation orders. By mid-August, two powerful alliances across Europe were formed and pitted against each other.

World War 1 war memorial in Cernobbio front; Image credit
World War 1 war memorial in Cernobbio front; Image credit

The Central power had Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria pitted against the Allied Powers or the Entente Powers consisting of France, the British and Russian Empire and Italy. The Allied Powers was joined in by the United States later in 1917.

The assassination was just a trigger to the already brewing tension amongst the European nations, especially in the Balkan region. Austria-Hungary used this incident as an opportunity to clamp down upon the Serbian government and settle the issue of Slavic nationalism. Before the July 28 incident, the Germans had already pledged their support to Austria-Hungary in the case of any war, taking place with Russian intervention. Serbia already had support from the Russians and its allies, France and Great Britain.

Germany’s aggressive military strategy saw it fighting the war on two fronts – invading France through a neutral Belgium in the West and Russia on the eastern side. The Russian forces invaded East Prussia and German Poland but met with defeat at the hands of the Germans. They continued striking the Germans on the eastern front but remained unsuccessful throughout the two years. This led to discontentment among the Russian population, which led to the Russian Revolution of 1917 led by Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Lenin’s first demand was the withdrawal of Russia from the World War. Finally, in December 1917, Russia reached an armistice with the Allied powers.

Despite its initial victory over the Allies, the Ottoman Empire succumbed to later defeats and the Arab revolt, which destroyed its economy. It signed a treaty with the Allied Powers in October 1918. Austria-Hungary, on the other hand, was struggling internally with the growing nationalist movement when finally in November, it signed a peace treaty with the Allies.

Germany faced huge defeats at the hands of the French. Left with no allies, massive losses and discontentment amongst the German population, it was forced to reach an armistice with the Allied Powers on November 11, 1918, culminating the First World War.

The four years of the war had left behind a huge trail of death and destruction. The use of modern weaponry that included machine guns, tanks and chemical weapons along with trench warfare left more than nine million soldiers dead and twenty-one million injured.

World War 1 tank, Masterton, New Zealand; Image credit
World War 1 tank, Masterton, New Zealand; Image credit

The loss of civilian life was an estimated ten million. The worst affected countries were France and Germany, who had sent almost eighty percent of their male population on the warfront. The Great War also put an end to four imperial dynasties in Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Russia.

At a peace conference in Paris in 1919, the Versailles Treaty was signed. The Allied powers did this to safeguard against any future conflicts of such a devastating magnitude. Germany was denied entry into the League of Nations but was coaxed into signing the Versailles Treaty. This led to resentment among the Germans against the Allies, which smouldered for two decades and became one of the reasons for the Second World War.

The Indian army fought for the British Empire against the Germans during the War. Over one million troops went overseas, out of which there were sixty-two thousand casualties and an equal number injured.


Text by Tasneem Dhinojwala

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